The well-attended screening of the Ava DuVernay directed documentary 13th left dozens of people without a chair, and the dedicated viewers used jackets as cushions on the Arcus Center floor. Those attending the screening spoke among themselves until representatives from Kalamazoo’s Black Arts and Cultural Center (BACC) and Change Agent Consulting introduced the film.
Described by DuVernay, acclaimed director of the movie Selma, as “150 years of oppression in 100 minutes,” 13th examines the development of the United States’ prison system as a platform to perpetuate racism. Stemming from the ill-intentioned clause within the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” the film traces the forces that created the racially disparate penal system that exists today.
During the opening credits, the recognizable voice of former president Obama relayed a startling statistic: the U.S holds 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. The documentary then followed the racial history of the U. S. prison system through interviews with professors, activists, and legislators. Following the 13th Amendment, convict leasing allowed prisons to “rent” out the inmates to assist with labor for a company or the government, reinstating slavery under the pretenses of assuaging the economic crisis created by the absence of free labor.
The already prejudiced law enforcement interpreted convict leasing as governmental encouragement to target African-Americans, placing recently freed individuals back into servitude. As the years progressed this discrimination grew more subtle, yet the myth of the “black criminal” persisted and was propagandized by the media. The war on drugs became a war on communities of people of color and news outlets continued to sensationalize and over represent the number of African-American criminals to the public.
The documentary then addressed the 1994 Crime Bill under the Clinton administration which endowed money for larger police forces, created new prisons, and introduced mandatory minimums for judicial sentencing. This bill, as well as many others providing profits for large companies and private prisons, was pushed by a group known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
The support from corporate funders and the one in four legislators that belong to ALEC are the driving forces behind much of the legislation that supports private prisons. Similar lobbying groups contribute to the continuingly disparate population of people of color within U.S. prisons.
The film ended with an explanation of the Black Lives Matter movement as the rehumanizing of the African-American community after ages of injustice. The hosts then prompted the audience, asking for three words to describe the emotions they felt about the information covered in the film.
“Fear. Oppression. Bigotry,” responded a member of the audience, a sentiment received with audible acknowledgement from others in the room. The audience was broken up into two discussion groups: those who identified as people of color and those who identified as white. The groups reconvened after ten minutes to discuss together, communicating the action steps collected from each of the groups.
To end the discussion, the hosts stressed the necessity of supporting people of color in the community and encouraging involvement in movements advocating for their just treatment.